“The interest of English-speaking intellectuals in reincarnation, however, was supercharged in the 1880s by the Theosophical movement led by Madame Blavatsky. Drawing directly on Hindu and Buddhist thought, once more, it made the doctrine both widely known and fashionable in the West, as it has been ever since.”
[From ‘Dion Fortune and Wicca’, a talk presented by Ronald Hutton at the 2009 Dion Fortune Seminar]
“The ideas of theosophy filtered through to large numbers of people who never joined the Society, encouraging them to seek an alternative from the apparent bonds of both traditional Christianity and of the new science in syncretic faiths and heterodox reinterpretations of Christ’s teachings, often infusing concepts taken from classical paganism. Indian ideas, however, remained a much greater source of inspiration. The two biggest achievements of Blavatsky’s movement were probably to make the notions of a single divine world soul, of which all life is a part, and of reincarnation, both widely known and widely held in the modern European and American worlds.”
[Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton, p. 20]
“Indeed, metempsychosis stood as a salient element in the Renaissance conceptualization of the human being, the universe, and the former’s place in regard to the latter. Under the rubric of this doctrine, which is known in variant forms with diverse subtleties of meaning by the English terms palingenesis, the transmigration of souls, rebirth, and reincarnation, and which is associated with the Hebrew locutions gilgul neshamot, ha’atakah, ‘ibbur, din b’nei halof, and sod ha-shelach, stand concepts and theories as diverse as its names ….
“This present study will focus on eight significant fifteenth century thinkers who discussed the idea of metempsychosis from with Jewish and humanist contexts. The first two scholars to be treated, Rabbi Michael ha-Cohen Balbo and Rabbi Moshe ha-Cohen Ashkenazi, were Jewish communal leaders at the ends of two opposing philosophical camps in the community of Candia on the Venetian controlled island of Crete ….
“The next two thinkers to be treated in this study, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel and Rabbi Judah Hayyat, were prominent Spanish Jewish thinkers who both made their way to Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 …. The next two thinkers who will be examined, Rabbi Elia Hayyim ben Binyamin of Genazzano and Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno, were born in Italy and were active in Tuscany ….
“The final two thinkers to be analyzed in this book were prominent Christian philosophers of the Italian Renaissance who fell under the influence of kabbalistic lore. Giovanni Pico dello Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino were two of the most influential and important Italian humanist philosophers of the fifteenth century, and an analysis of their thought concerning metempsychosis will help us to moor the idea in the wider cultural and philosophical context of the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, both Pico and Ficino discussed the idea at some length within their writings, and both seem to have lent it a degree of support. Nevertheless, the idea was in opposition to the standard sentiments of the Church, and both thinkers veiled their support of the doctrine of metempsychosis is allegory. Interestingly, Pico, who is widely known for his familiarity with kabbalistic lore, completely omits kabbalistic reference to metempsychosis and relies most heavily on Plotinus in the formulation of his own theories. In contradistinction, Ficino, who is not known for his reliance on kabbalah, invokes the kabbalistic tradition in regard to metempsychosis, oftentimes at points that go beyond mere allegory and venture into questions of veridicality ….”
[Renaissance and rebirth: reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah by Brian Ogren, Brill, 2009, pp. 2-5]
“After the Bahir normalized the concept of transmigration within Judaism and gave it credence by reading it into canonical texts, later generations of Jewish thinkers followed suit. In a standard interpretive process of arcanization, these thinkers read the enigmatic doctrine of metempsychosis back in to the classical canon of Judaism, including the bible itself. Through this process, thinkers would interpret biblical and other canonical texts as though they contained within themselves the secret doctrine of transmigration, seeking legitimacy for the doctrine from these very texts themselves …. In the original kabbalistic thought of Nahmanides [1194-1270], this idea was highly veiled, and in the words of Nahmanides himself, “The matter is a great secret from the secrets of the Torah concerning the generation of man, and it is seen by the eyes of those to whom God gave eyes to see.” In other words, it is a secret tradition that explains the human generations throughout the ages, and it cannot readily be revealed, but is left up to the understanding of those who are capable of understanding on their own accord. Nahmanides also perceived the doctrine to be the key to the entire book of Job. Nevertheless, in this case too, according to Nahmanides, the matter is highly secretive, should not be expounded, and can only be understood by the select few.
“After the generation of Nahmanides, perhaps due to a desire to unravel the mystery of the secret that enticed by means of its very secrecy, the topic of metempsychosis became more open for discussion amongst kabbalistic thinkers. Among these thinkers, the thirteenth century Isaac of Acco, who sought to synthesize several mystical strands and elements including Sufism, ecstatic kabbalah and theosophical thought, discussed the idea of metempsychosis in his influential work Sefer Me’irat Einayim. Most of the sections of Me’irat Einayim dealing with transmigration are based upon, and attempt to decode the mysteries of Nahmanides. Indeed, in the very first place in which Isaac of Acco discusses the idea, in relation to the death of Abel in the book of Genesis, he directly quotes Nahmanides: “The received secret concerning the matter of Abel is very great.” He proceeds, “Alas, I am properly writing a clear clarification for you, with the help of He who is good and who makes good; know that the secret of Abel is the secret of transmigration.” In a motif that is later to become prominent with kabbalistic thought, Abel’s is the first soul to be transmigrated, and eventually finds its way into the figure of Moses. Isaac of Acco expands upon the idea of metempsychosis in various other ways, and with this declaration and others, and this blatantly stated transmigrational reading of Nahmanides’ secret, he opens up the way for further exploration and inquiry into the matter.
“Around 1275, the same period in which Isaac of Acco was active, the Zohar made its appearance onto the scene of Jewish thought in Castile, Spain. Later to become the central text of kabbalah, the Zohar is in actuality not a single book, but an entire body of literature. Within the specific portion of this corpus known as ‘the body’ of the Zohar, which is fundamentally a running mystical midrashic commentary on the weekly portions of the Torah, the discussion concerning metempsychosis takes its fullest form in the commentary on the Torah portion Mishpatim, known as Sava d’Mishpatim. This section of the Zohar contains the discourse of Rav Yeiva Sava, and unassuming old man who appears to be a lowly donkey driver, but who in reality is a remarkable mystic. Rav Yeiva gives a rather elaborate homily concerning the soul, in which the theory of metempsychosis is the most developed of the Zohar ….”
“The fourteenth century Italian kabbalist Menahem Recanati based himself heavily on Zoharic literature and profusely expounded upon the idea of metempsychosis on his own accord …. [Recanati] offers a type of summary of the idea as it appears within prior kabbalistic sources, basing himself mainly upon the Bahir and upon the Zohar; in regard to the latter, he basis himself especially, though not exclusively, upon the Midrash ha-Ne’elam l’Ruth. Recanati proved to have had a profound effect upon the subsequent course of Italian kabbalah, which relied heavily upon his theories and his citations of the Zohar. Indeed, his works were a main source of Zoharic literature for those within the Italian milieu. Recanati also influenced the likes of David ibn Avi Zimra concerning transmigration, a figure who was the purported teacher of Isaac Luria. Without a doubt, Recanati’s reach was wide-ranging, both as a transmitter of previous texts and ideas and as an interpreter in his own right.”
[Brian Ogren, ibid, pp. 15-18]
“Fifteenth century Italy witnessed notable developments in notions of metempsychosis, partly due to a turn in philosophical psychology to more homocentric notions, partly due to an influx of texts, ideas and scholars and the meeting points of various cultures, and partly due to a struggle for the assertion of national and cultural identity. Many other factors were involved as well, such as the exotericization of previously esoteric modes of thought, and indeed, no single factor stands at the crux of the process of these developments. Rather, the picture remains as complex as the doctrine of metempsychosis itself. What is certain is that in the late fifteenth century Italy, the fluid doctrine of metempsychosis advanced to a position of theoretical prominence. Aided by the greater acceptance of both prior kabbalistic concepts and Neoplatonic thought, which were both esteemed elements of prisca theologia in Italian Renaissance Jewish and Christian camps alike, the doctrine of metempsychosis began to be taken very seriously, even by those outside of the strictly mystical camps. As such, by turning to this increasingly popular doctrine of individual continuity in all of its complexities, greater light can be shed upon the dynamics, complications and consequences of Italian Renaissance thought, both Jewish and Christian analogously, concerning the creation of man in the divine image and the resulting uniqeness of his distinctive soul.”
[Brian Ogren, ibid, p. 39]
About Brian Ogren, author of Renaissance and Rebirth (from Brill website):
Brian Ogren, Ph.D. (2008) in Jewish Thought, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaches Jewish Thought and mysticism at the Hebrew University and at other institutions in Israel. He has published several articles on philosophy and Jewish Thought.
About the book Renaissance and Rebirth (also from Brill):
Metempsychosis was a prominent element in Renaissance conceptualizations of the human being, the universe, and the place of the human person in the universe. A variety of concepts emerged in debates about metempsychosis: human to human reincarnation, human to vegetal, human to animal, and human to angelic transmigration. As a complex and changing doctrine, metempsychosis gives us a well-placed window for viewing the complex and dynamic contours of Jewish thought in late fifteenth century Italy; as such, it enables us to evaluate Jewish thought in relation to non-Jewish Italian developments. This book addresses the problematic question of the roles and achievements of Jews who lived in Italy in the development of Renaissance culture in its Jewish and its Christian dimensions.
Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:
- Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
- Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
- Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
- Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
- Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
- Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
- Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis